instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Not in Kansas

Have you ever watched someone argue with a strawman they've built themselves? It can be quite something, to see the way people exaggerate, misrepresent, misunderstand, or simply invent a position to oppose. One of the most remarkable things about it, to me, is how very pleased with ourselves we can be to have overthrown an argument that no living human being is actually making.

Except... there are many, many living human beings, and we are prone to making poor arguments. The most we can say with confidence about a strawman argument is that no living human being involved in the discussion has offered it. There may well be some bozo somewhere who would, given the chance, agree with the strawman.

And of course the Internet has been giving bozos chances for years now.

As an intellectual achievement, though, defeating a bozo argument is on par with defeating a strawman argument. It might be more necessary, depending on the circumstances, but it offers no more cause for self-satisfaction. If anything, it might be cause for discomfort and embarrassment at being required to draw attention to the bozoness of another living human being.

Often, though, the intrusion of a bozo argument is welcomed as an opportunity for complete triumph. As with a strawman, the bozo is taken as representative of the whole opposition to one's own position, and overthrowing the bozo argument is taken as sufficient proof of one's own correctness.

The bozo argument even adds a sweetness to the pleasure of success, in that there is an actual live human being who will claim that position, and the scalp of a specific individual is much more satisfying than those of a whole passel of vague "those who say." And if you're really lucky, the bozo will keep coming back for more of the same.

If the goal of my writing is to win a game I've invented and am scorekeeper of, then bozo arguments are money in the bank. If the goal is to arrive, with as many fellow travelers as possible, at as much truth as possible, then they are distractions to be dealt with with as little fanfare and effort as possible.

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